“The Story of Pentheus” – Ovid

by richibi

The Triumphal Procession of Bacchus, c.1536 - Maerten van Heemskerck

         The Triumphal Procession of Bacchus” (c.1536)


                   Maerten van Heemskerck





till now the separate stories in Ovid’s

Metamorphoses have been linked,

one being either a consequence of

the other,or its cause, but the story

of Pentheus, grandson of Cadmus,

king and founder of Thebes, who

earlier in this series had his own

tale told, starts, as my German

teacher used to say, from the



This sad event, therefore, in the

first line of the poem, refers to

what will follow, not what came



            This sad event gave blind Tiresias fame,

            Through Greece establish’d in a prophet’s name.


Tiresias, if you’ll remember, had been

blinded by Juno / Hera, goddess of the

gods, for having sided with Jove / Jupiter

/ Zeus, her husband, in a wager between

them he’d been called upon to decide,

Jove / Jupiter / Zeus, however, gave 

Tiresias, as consolation, having been

barred by a pact among the gods not

to undo each other’s spells, the gift

of insight, prophecy


the example that follows, of his divination,

establish[‘d] at that time his reputation

[t]hrough[out] Greece as a prophet

            Th’ unhallow’d Pentheus only durst deride

            The cheated people, and their eyeless guide.


unhallow’d, unholy, wicked, sinful


Pentheus, king of Thebes following

his grandfather, Cadmus, but that’s

an entirely other story


only, of all the people, none but

Pentheus durst, dared, deride,

mock, their eyeless guide, Tiresias

            To whom the prophet in his fury said,

            Shaking the hoary honours of his head:


hoary, grizzled, gray, aged

            “‘Twere well, presumptuous man, ’twere well forthee

            If thou wert eyeless too, and blind, like me:

            For the time comes, nay, ’tis already here,

            When the young God’s solemnities appear:


the young God[], Bacchus / Dionysus,

son of Semele and Jove / Jupiter / Zeus,

if you’ll remember, god of revelry,

intoxication, wild abandon


            Which, if thou dost not with just rites adorn,

            Thy impious carcass, into pieces torn,

            Shall strew the woods, and hang on ev’ry thorn.


impious carcass, dishonoured corpse, 

of any thou who wouldn’t’ve honoured

the celebrations


            Then, then, remember what I now foretel,

            And own the blind Tiresias saw too well.”


own, agree to, admit

            Still Pentheus scorns him, and derides his skill;

            But time did all the prophet’s threats fulfil.

            For now through prostrate Greece young Bacchus rode,


prostrate, beholden, reverent, observant

of the solemnities

            Whilst howling matrons celebrate the God:

            All ranks and sexes to his Orgies ran,

            To mingle in the pomps, and fill the train.


the rites of Bacchus were bacchanals,

orgies, celebrations of abandon, Mardi

Gras, for instance, in New Orleans,

annual Gay Parades, now everywhere,

or Hallowe’en since time immemorial


see above



            When Pentheus thus his wicked rage express’d:

            “What madness, Thebans, has your souls possess’d?

            Can hollow timbrels, can a drunken shout,


timbrels, tambourines

            And the lewd clamours of a beastly rout,

            Thus quell your courage;


quell your courage, overcome your

sense of discipline


                                            can the weak alarm

            Of women’s yells those stubborn souls disarm,


those stubborn souls, the Theban

spirit of pride and honour

            Whom nor the sword nor trumpet e’er could fright,

            Nor the loud din and horror of a fight?

            And you, our sires, who left your old abodes,


our sires, the older generation of

Thebans, of his grandfather

Cadmus‘ ilk

            And fix’d in foreign earth your country Gods;


foreign earth, very Thebes, from Tyre,

where Cadmus and his followers had

come from, in search of Europa, if

you’ll remember

            Will you without a stroak your city yield,


stroak, stroke


            And poorly quit an undisputed field?


undisputed field, there are no

military obstructions

            But you, whose youth and vigour should inspire

            Heroick warmth, and kindle martial fire,

            Whom burnish’d arms and crested helmets grace,

            Not flow’ry garlands and a painted face;


Remember him to whom you stand ally’d:


him, Pentheus himself, their king

            The serpent for his well of waters dy’d.


The serpenta reference here to the

dragon that Cadmus slew, which had

guarded the cavern where his crew

had been scouting for water, if you’ll



            He fought the strong; do you his courage show,

            And gain a conquest o’er a feeble foe.


a feeble foe, licentiousness, abandon,

undisciplined revelry


            If Thebes must fall, oh might the fates afford

            A nobler doom from famine, fire, or sword.


Pentheus appeals to a loftier reason

for defeat, famine, fire, or sword, than

mere, and ignoble, debauchery

            Then might the Thebans perish with renown:

            But now a beardless victor sacks the town;


beardless victor, the young Bacchus /


            Whom nor the prancing steed, nor pond’rous shield,

            Nor the hack’d helmet, nor the dusty field,

            But the soft joys of luxury and ease,

            The purple vests, and flow’ry garlands please.


Bacchus / Dionysus is not impressed

by armour, military accomplishments,

prowess, but by grace, elegance, and


            Stand then aside, I’ll make the counterfeit

            Renounce his god-head, and confess the cheat.


the counterfeit, Bacchus / Dionysus

            Acrisius from the Grecian walls repell’d

            This boasted pow’r; why then should Pentheus yield?


Acrisius, a king of Argos, who must’ve

also repell’d from his city Bacchus /

Dionysus, according to the poem

            Go quickly drag th’ impostor boy to me;


th’ impostor boy, the counterfeit,

Bachus / Dionysus

            I’ll try the force of his divinity.”


try, test

            Thus did th’ audacious wretch those rites profane;


th’ audacious wretch, Pentheus

            His friends dissuade th’ audacious wretch in vain:

            In vain his grandsire urg’d him to give o’er

            His impious threats; the wretch but raves the more.


his grandsire, Cadmus

            So have I seen a river gently glide,

            In a smooth course, and inoffensive tide;

            But if with dams its current we restrain,

            It bears down all, and foams along the plain.


nature will have its way, so will the

gods, watch out, the narrator says,

who it is that you challenge

            But now his servants came besmear’d with blood,

            Sent by their haughty prince to seize the God;


his servants, Pentheus‘ men


the God, Bacchus / Dionysus

            The God they found not in the frantick throng,

            But dragg’d a zealous votary along.


votary, follower, adherent,



the servants, Pentheus‘ men,

who did not, apparently, deliver


stay tuned



R ! chard